I just got around to reading Andy Collins’ Design & Development article on Magic Item Compendium from February, and it seems to tie in quite well to my previous entries on “Magic Shop” syndrome. The question is asked, why do players always purchase the “big six” magic items (weapon, armour/shield, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, amulet of natural armor and the six ability-score boosters) and never any of the unusual but cool stuff like the helm of underwater action or apparatus of Kwalish?
Collins’ rationale is that the main items are simply best because they’re cheap, upgradeable, always-on, easy to use, don’t compete for “slots”, and that your character is underpowered if he doesn’t use them. I can’t disagree, but this approach takes a very narrow view and belies the big picture. Why are the Big Six, along with boots of springing and striding and such, really so much more popular than any other set of items? There are several real reasons.
First up, the vast majority of magic items were imported from 2nd edition AD&D, which, as I mentioned in my previous entry, predates the phenomenon of magic items being tradeable for money. Originally in D&D, you could keep a helm of underwater action or leave it, and it became useful whenever it did. Now that you can sell it, nobody wants the helmet when they can trade it in to upgrade their +3 sword to +4.
Why are the Big Six so much more valuable? Forget minutiae like slotting and ease of use; the real reason is that these items provide direct, permanent, numerical bonuses to your character’s main rolls. Obtaining that +4 sword is just as significant to the character’s advancement as gaining a feat or bonus from levelling up. The Big Six are popular because they directly increase ability scores, to-hit and damage, saving throws, or armor class. Other ubiquitous items are similar – the bag of holding enhances carrying capacity, the boots of striding and springing increase base speed, and the wand of cure light wounds increases your cleric’s daily capacity to heal.
Obtaining the Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. Let me take the article’s “six reasons” from this perspective:
- Cheap to buy: Not quite – rather, they’re powerful for their price. The reason they’re powerful is because they automatically work whenever you do whatever it is you would be doing anyway, so they’re essentially 100% effective. The other items don’t give you that sort of efficiency.
- Room to grow: They’re just about the only items that can grow. The intent is that like with magic weapons, they can improve with your character. That’s not a major reason for their popularity; rather, it just makes them cheaper to replace with more poweful ones (see the first point).
- No slot competition: Actually, these items do compete for slots. They just don’t tend to compete with each other. The only reason there’s no competition with other magic items is that they’re the best magic items in their slots.
- Easy to understand: It’s rather than they’re simple in that they grant straightforward bonuses to existing abilities rather than granting complex new abilities.
- No activation cost: Items with an activation cost tend to do something specific, such as cast a spell (wands) or deal damage (horn of blasting – otherwise, activation cost is simply a drawback. The benefit of the Big Six is that they’re always-on – see the first point.
- Required to play: It’s rather that since these items enhance what your characters are meant to be doing, they become an integral part of developing characters to be better than that. However, it’s certainly expected of players that they will spend at least some of their treasure in enhancing their primary ability, so you’re definitely undercutting your character’s ability if you don’t invest in some items.
I’ll re-iterate: obtaining the so-called Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. It’s simply another part of the character optimization that seems to have characterised third edition D&D. Inferior items are not worth what they’re worth; they’re worth their trade-in value, and nothing will be worth as much to a powergamer as their own character progression.